Calender Stories

The invention of nature: The adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the lost hero of science

Book Cover © John Murray
Fjordland has a Humboldt Range, a Humboldt Creek and Humboldt Falls. In North America there are four Humboldt counties and thirteen Humboldt towns as well as Humboldt bays, lakes and mountains. Humboldt’s lily grows in California, Humboldt penguins are found in South America, and the Humboldt squid swims in the Humboldt Current, which runs along the coast of Chile and Peru. Humboldts are everywhere – including in Mare Humboldtianum on the moon – but until recently the intrepid scientist behind the name had faded from memory. Andrea Wulf’s ‘The Invention of Nature’ sets out to restore the reputation of Alexander von Humboldt as a ‘hero’ of modern science who gave us a new way of thinking about our planet.
Wulf suggests that Humboldt’s achievements have been forgotten precisely because they were so wide-ranging. Humboldt explored previously unstudied areas of South America and Siberia, climbed higher than any mountaineer before him, and measured, analysed and collected wherever he went. He returned from his first expedition with new astronomical and geological findings as well as two thousand plant specimens unknown to European botanists of the time. He came up with the idea of vegetation zones, discovered the magnetic equator, invented isotherms as a means of depicting temperature and pressure, and identified the problem of human-induced climate change. His observations and ideas filled multiple volumes and covered everything from outer space to the composition of the earth’s core. Wulf describes his many endeavours as an expression of an overarching project: to comprehend life on earth as a living whole. Her idea of Humboldt as the ‘inventor’ of our contemporary concept of nature is a way of summing up his work under a single memorable heading while exploring the variety of his life and influence.

There is no shortage of material: Humboldt was not only intrepid and prolific; he also met and corresponded with many of the great historical figures of his age. Wulf describes his friendship with literary luminary Goethe in Weimar, with President Thomas Jefferson at the White House, with pioneering engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel in London, and with Venezuelan revolutionary Simón Bolívar in Paris. Humboldt received an annual stipend from the King of Prussia, Tsar Nicholas I commissioned him to explore Siberia, and people thronged along the route to hear him talk. Wulf tells Humboldt’s story from his birth in 1769 to his death in Berlin at the age of eighty-nine. Throughout the book, she traces different paths of influence, making connections with Darwin, Romantic poetry, the national park movement in the US, the rise of ecological science, and beyond. ‘The Invention of Nature’ has won numerous prizes – and justly so. It is a compelling biography, a colourful portrait of an age, and a rich history of ideas.  
John Murray, 2015, 496 pp.

About the Author

Portrait Andrea Wulf © © Antonia Gern Portrait Andrea Wulf © Antonia Gern
Andrea Wulf was born in India, moved to Germany as a child, and now lives in the UK. Previous works include ‘The Brother Gardeners’ and ‘Chasing Venus’. Her biography of Humboldt ‘The Invention of Nature’ has won numerous prizes including the Royal Society Science Book Award, the Costa Biography Award and the Royal Geographical Society’s Ness Award.


Bookshelf / Bücherregal

Readers of ‘The Invention of Nature’ can find an irreverent fictional exploration of Alexander von Humboldt in Daniel Kehlmann’s ‘Measuring the World’, which featured in last month’s ‘Bookshelf’. Kehlmann’s novel pairs Humboldt with mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss to explore different approaches to gaining knowledge – and sometimes wisdom. This month we look at another – less mischievous – dual biography and at a tableau of an eventful year: ‘Summer Before Dark’ and ‘1913’.

Book Cover © Clerkenwell Press
1913: The Year Before the Storm (1913: Der Sommer des Jahrhunderts)
Florian Illies
Translated by Shaun Whiteside and Jamie Lee Searle
Clerkenwell Press, 2013

January 1913 sees twelve-year-old Louis Armstrong sent to a correction facility in New Orleans and learn to play the trumpet. Meanwhile, Freud is presiding over the Wednesday Club in Vienna, Franz Kafka is mailing unnerving love letters between Prague and Berlin, Ernst Jünger is writing essays at school, a Russian pilot is celebrating the first loop-the-loop in a fighter plane, and an Austrian skater is inventing the Lutz. Near Schönbrunn Palace, Stalin takes a walk in the park, and so too does Hitler: perhaps their paths cross. None of them knows what 1914 has in store for the world. Month by month, Florian Illies tells the story of a year that is not yet a prelude to a catastrophe. Through scenes from the lives of artists, scientists and politicians, he captures every day and epochal events before they are overshadowed by what followed.

Book Cover © Pushkin Press
Summer Before the Dark: Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Ostend 1936 (Ostend 1936, Sommer der Freundschaft)
Volker Weidermann
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway
Pushkin Press, 2016

Writer Stefan Zweig spent the summer of 1936 in the Belgian seaside resort of Ostend. There he met daily with other intellectuals who had gathered on the coast. Among them was Joseph Roth – thirteen years his junior, considerably scruffier and poorer, but a captivating conversationalist and supremely talented writer. Weidermann’s non-fiction novel brings to life the troubled friendship between the two men as Europe is plunged into darkness and their tragedies unfold.

Text: Sally-Ann Spencer
Copyright: Goethe-Institut New Zealand, 2016